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Hello everyone from the wilds of Central Burma!
Come, come ride in my streetcar
By the bay
For I must know how fine you are
In your way
And the earth will roll by
And the sea, and the sky
For it's really too hard
For to fly
For to Fly, Nick Drake
Sometimes when it all gets too much there's only one place to go: the Lygon Street tram spur. What? You've never been there? On the corner of Lygon Street and Brunswick Road? Come on, you must have. It's a curve of track running from the Lygon Street tram line into Brunswick Road and going nowhere - the only remnant of a connecting line that ran from St Georges Road down Holden Street and then along to the East Brunswick line.
The track was pulled up in the 1950s, and only this section of it remains, a smooth turn going nowhere. What could be a better place to contemplate the infinite on still summer nights than a tram line turning off the main track and into the past, the rails gleaming in the moonlight? The only faintly disturbing element is when one goes to it - as one would go to a riverbank or a mountain for answers - and finds three other people there, in duffle coats, clearly victim of the same obsession.
Trams, yes, trams. They are not a hobby, or an obsession, that people are wont to admit to. In an era when celebrities will cheerily 'fess up to shooting dilute codeine straight into their eyeball and Paris Hilton is marketing her own live sex tape, an interest in fixed-track transport counts as something best kept to yourself. Now that every kid who can't speak Bahasa and play violin the Suzuki way by the age of three is whipped off for tests to rule out possible Asperger's, there is no figure more derided than the trainspotter - pale, solitary riders of the rails, dressed in disposal store casuals and brandishing a German rolling stock logbook. And if trainspotters have it tough, then tram enthusiasts are seen as not only deranged but wimpy.
But I don't care. We tramophiles are everywhere, a vast illuminati hiding in everyday life, talking of shunt sequences on the 5/64 Malvern split route or the closure date of the Elsternwick to Point Ormond section.
Trainspotters admire sublime locomotive power, but trams are something else. There is something very eerie, very uncanny about trams. A classic Leunig cartoon that shows a troop of weary commuters boarding an old W-class tram with a destination sign that reads "Oblivion" pretty much gets it: trams are metaphysical, reminders of destiny and fate. A bus is just a way of getting from somewhere to somewhere else. A tram ride is a Journey. My suspicion about trams is that the aspect of them that most evokes our fascination is the sense of a total system. Any tram on a network, seen individually, is a representative of the whole system, spread out to the corners of the city, and thus represents the entire city itself.
Trams knit a city together, making each of its parts apparent in all others: Bundoora in Docklands, Kew in St Kilda Beach, Coburg in South Melbourne. For a long time, of course, that knitting effect was aided by long belts of the cable tram system that ran beneath the streets, drawing toaster-rack trams along now-forgotten routes, down Rathdowne Street or along Johnston Street from Carlton to Dights Falls. Now the electric cables are like a net, barely seen until visitors point them out. It is no coincidence then that those who genuinely suffer from Asperger's, or those types - comedy writers, librarians - liable to have an Aspergerish streak in their make-up, find trains and trams so endlessly appealing. Their systems promise order beneath the chaos - total connection and reason. Cities with tram networks - real networks, not the San Francisco-style tourist remnant - have a common sense to them, an air of mystery that could not be otherwise created. Lisbon has a Gnostic air, a sense that if only one could untangle the logic of its myriad routes and destinations, everything would be known.
Melbourne, too, promises such revelation, but makes its achievement all but impossible by the apparent randomness of route numbers. They made sense when introduced in 1929: the south-easternmost route (Glen Huntly/Elsternwick to Coburg) was number 1, and numbers 2, 3, 4 and so on were points along the way in a wheel around to the west of town. Services stopping short of a terminus were lettered: 6a for Malvern Town Hall, for example.
When routes were changed (the number 1 moved to Coburg/South Melbourne in the 1950s) they took their numbers with them. Letters were abolished, so the 6a became the number 7, and the number 7 - Camberwell - became the 7.2, or 72. Looking back at the history of it, it seems clear that a decision was made at some point to abandon the idea of numbering for ease of use, and go with the exact opposite, a system so arcane that any attempt to plan a route by it would render one hopelessly lost. One could wander forever trying to find the place where the 8 and the 82 meet, until eventually one's personality would disintegrate and one's being would flow painlessly into the fabric of the city.
For that is the other sacred aspect of trams, the reason they play on our mind - they are memento mori, reminders of death. Trains take us to other cities, cars and buses go where we tell them. Only trams have a terminus that is near, and soon, and close to home. Barely settled in, and lulled by the rocking motion, we have hardly started to pass the schools and shops, the offices and homes, parks and cinemas before we realise we are coming to the end of the ride. Is that the reason for the quiver of anxiety at a terminus - to see the point at which the tracks stop, and there is nothing beyond? And the reason why there is something terrifying about the night's last tram, the one that comes from nowhere, returning to depot, with no number or destination? And why the sight of abandoned rails and disused routes intimates that all will eventually be covered over, forgotten, and thereby disturbs, and then consoles?
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